Cambodia…

Wow, okay I’m home from Cambodia and the first thing I can say is that an 8 day trip felt more like a 2-3 week trip and I have no idea why. The best thing was that Cambodia not only lived up to my expectations, it surpassed them in a lot of ways.

Yes it is a third world country in most respects, and yes it was confronting and at some times even distressing, however there is so much potential and hope for the future that you can almost feel the excitement in the locals towards the opportunities that tourism will bring to their country.

So speaking of tourists, sit back with a cocktail and let me tell you about my 8 day whirlwind tour of Cambodia!

Day 1 – We met at the airport and flew out with Vietnam Airways to Ho Chi Min City where we had a 4 hour stop over. After 8 hours sitting in a plane it was nice to spend 4 hours sitting in an airport terminal. After the sun set we caught our 1 hour night flight to Siem Reap (Northern part of the Tonel Sap in Cambodia). Being slightly jet-lagged and more tired than anything else when we finally made it to our hotel room (we travelled by Tuk-Tuk from the airport) we decided to have an early night.  The early night proved to be a good thing as some of our crew who had arrived the day before us, showed signs of suffering the next morning from the high exposure to alcohol over at the Temple Bar from the night before.

Day 2 – After a hearty breakfast we gathered the clothing to be donated and met with Yousa (three eyes) our tour guide and boarded our bus ready to go out and meet the village that we had raised our funds for. The bus buzzed with excitement and within an hour we had arrived at the village. We began our trek into the middle of the fields to see the house that was built last year and to see the bikes that had all been given to the villagers prior to us arriving. Every family had gotten one bicycle. We spent some time taking photos as a big group and some thank you photos for those who had donated for a bicycle. Then we had the children line up in lines and we handed out the clothes by measuring them against the children and ensuring each child walked away with something.

After that we broke into small groups and followed a different family each back to their homes to see how they lived, it was an eye opener to see that most of them lived with nothing. Some of us were offered pieces of fruit and others were offered a chance to look inside their homes (which were usually just little leafy huts). After this we said our goodbyes and hit the frog and toad off to have lunch. We then returned to the hotel to cool off in the pool, almost a necessity given the hot temperatures and the high humidity.

After the swim we headed out for a cruise out onto the Tonel Sap to see the Floating Villages. As the sun set we watched the water change colour and the fisher families head back to their homes to get ready to celebrate Cambodian New Year.

The evening saw us take a walk down to Pub street where I shared a Khmer BBQ meal with a friend. This involved cooking it ourselves on a small gas stove that was placed on our table. It came with noodles, vegetables and 5 different meats: Beef, Crocodile, Snake, Frog Legs and Shrimp. I ate everything but the shrimp… The croc was delicious, as were the barbecued frog legs… the snake was far too chewy for my liking however, and the beef was just beef.

We then took a walk down to the night market which had a lovely family feel to it, before visiting the Island Bar, which was just a giant hut at the end of the market with delicious cocktails.

Day 3 – We made our way to Angkor Wat! The day was the hottest day of the trip and as we explored the impressive ruins of history we sweated and sweated until we were convinced our skin was going to just melt off our body. We started off with a visit to Angkor Thom, which included some interesting tales from three eyes, and some serious climbing to reach the top level of the temples.

We then piled into a tiny bus and travelled to Ta Prohm which has become quite popular these days thanks to Angelina Jolie and her Tomb Raiding scenes. Though much cooler at these temples but still very hot, we were all just blown away by the majestic trees that had long since become part of the ruins. We climbed through all the ruins and I had a blast taking photos of everything I could see all the while fantasising what it would have been like to have discovered these ruins after being hidden away for so long.

After lunch we made our way over the giant moat to witness the enormity that is the Angkor Wat Temples. We climbed to the top, paying our respects to the giant stone artefacts that existed in the towers before heading out the back for a much needed drink and ice cream.

A swim in the pool was priority that afternoon before another night out to Pub street for dinner and drinks. Cocktails were cheap as chips, and 6 of us sat together in a line of chairs for a 30minute foot scrub and massage… for the high price of $3US

Day 4 – A day of personal choices. I joined a group of friends for a 1.5 hour quad bike ride through the back villages of Siem Reap. We jumped on the quad bikes and gunned our way down little dirt paths, waving to the smiling children and drinking in the views all around us. Rice Paddies, small houses, shrines, coconut trees, churned dirt ready for planting and people cooking in the outdoors. What an incredible way to get out and really see how people lived in Cambodia, all the while combating the heat with a steady breeze from constantly moving forward.

In the afternoon a visit to the artisans store, where every purchase is money straight into the orphanage that trains people to create beautiful products for fair trade groups. This day was once again followed up with a swim in the pool and a visit to Pub street for dinner.

Day 5 – Travel by bus to Phnom Penh is 6 hours non stop. We stopped for lunch by the river and once again just before Phnom Penh at a small roadside market where the wares included deep fried tarantulas and crickets, as well as fruit such as pineapple, mangoes and dragonfruit. I wasn’t feeling the greatest by the time we got to the small market, the bus trip had gotten to me and I had become depressed and felt isolated from the rest of the group. I couldn’t work out why I felt like that and couldn’t bring myself to talk to anyone to help shake of the depression I was feeling. So I watched others as they taste tested the deep fried arachnids and found myself not wanting to participate, I watched the locals watching my group and I felt ashamed, knowing full well that for some of these people, this is probably what they had lived off when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge Regime had chased them all out into the jungle to live. I played it safe having some pineapple and just wishing to get to my hotel room in the capital.

We arrived in Phnom Penh at dusk, checked into our hotel rooms and has a light dinner before tuk-tuking our way to the Foreign Correspondents Club where a member of the travel company shouted us to a drink by way of welcoming us to Cambodia’s capital city. The ride back to the hotel in the dark took a scary turn when our tuk-tuk driver took us down the back alleys and short cuts to get us back to our hotel, but being tired and new to the area we all started to get worried… had we bargained perhaps a little too hard with him on our agreed price to return to our hotel? Were we about to become involuntary organ donors? Were we going to be added to a prostitution ring? Just when we thought we were really in some serious strife we noticed the large hotel letter lights that spelled out the “Juliana” hotel… oh thank god!

Day – 6  We broke into tuk-tuk teams and made our way over to the Genocide Museum Tuol Sleng, formally known as S-21: Prison (torture centre)… where we got a fast and heartbreaking education on what was involved in Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge’s treatment of people that they detained. All the stories on the wall were the same. Lies and mistrust was fostered amongst friends and families until no one felt safe, an entire society broken down into a hot bed of fear until it was just too easy for the Khmer Rouge to take over and finish it all off. The cells were lined with photos of the victims that would die within the walls of S-21 during 1975-1979. It made me cry to see fear so clearly captured in single camera shots. To know that your own life is not your own, and that even your own death will be not of your own choosing would be such a terrible way to exist.

When then rode the tuk-tuks out to Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields), a place I will never forget as long as I live. A shrine exists there that houses the bones of hundreds and hundreds of exhumed bodies, divided up onto tiers in a giant glass tower. the bottom tier devoted to clothing found in the mass graves, the next 3 tiers to skulls, then other bones groups on the higher tiers. A solemn overwhelming example of some of those who perished under the Khmer Rouge regime. When we first arrived I heard beautiful music playing, it was loud and yet peaceful and I remember thinking “how nice” as we walked amongst the mass graves we came across a “magic tree” where the sign explained that from these trees they used to hang loud speakers that would play music, to drown out the moans of those who were being killed and dumped. The music I had noticed earlier, suddenly had a new darker meaning to it drifting through the warm air.

I wont describe the graves, or the methods of murder that was described to us as we followed our respectful guide through the grounds that still held bone fragments and clothing throughout. It was so heartbreaking to try to understand that such atrocities had occurred in what appeared to be a lush and beautiful part of Cambodia.

We went for lunch along the Mekong river where we reflected on what we had seen before making our way to the central market. After a swim, we went out for dinner where I ordered fried rice with pineapple only to be wowed when it was served in half a pineapple!

Day 7 – In the morning we decided to visit the king, so we tuk-tuked yet again over to the Royal Palace. There out tour guide showed us a Bodhi Tree (the Buddha was said to have meditated and achieved enlightenment under one). We also saw the Throne room, the Silver Pagoda (the floor is made of silver tiles) and we walked the gardens. A peaceful calming day after the emotional turmoil of the day before. I saw the Russian market where everything and anything was available for purchase, including a stall that sold remote controls… and a stall that sold snakes. The afternoon and evening was dedicated to some more swimming and a serious bombing competition into the pool where creativity and depth of splash were the main goals.

Day 8 – Our last day was destined for laziness and relaxation. A quick last visit to the Russian market to purchase DVDs was then followed up with basking and floating at the hotel pool. I paid the extra couple of dollars to ensure I had a room to return to after normal check out hours so I could swim and sun bake to my heart’s content. The majority of us had the same lovely idea. Club sandwiches for lunch and then it was a shower, last minute pack and check out before flying back to the cool air of Melbourne.

This trip was amazing, I saw things I will probably never see anywhere on the planet again, and some things I hope never to see on the planet again. The Cambodian people have beautiful smiles, beautiful food and are truly welcoming. Whilst it was often dark, dirty, hot, humid, scary, sad, exciting, inspiring, funny and challenging, it was always incredible. Of the two cities I enjoyed Siem Reap more, probably due to the smaller population and the friendlier feel that it had. If you get the chance and you do want to see Cambodia I highly recommend it! Countries like this need the positive influx of tourists who not only bring economic assistance through their spending, but it means more people around the world will go back to their countries and talk about what they have learnt from their visit.

As for me and what next? Who knows? Maybe I’ll just stick myself back into my work and bum around Australia a bit more before I jet-set my way to somewhere else on this little spinning green and blue ball.

Signing off for now!

L.J

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